Fixing the system with human values

By Professor Muhammad Yunus


Mark Wang

We must redesign our unsustainable economic system and create a new civilisation based on empathy, sharing and caring, argues Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus. He writes that if we fix the system there will be no poverty but, if we don’t, all of humankind could disappear within a century.

We can easily detect how inconsistent we are in our behaviour when we talk about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 in one breath, then aggressively promote nuclear weapons in the next. We express our determination to create a wonderful world, and simultaneously confirm that we don’t care whether there will be a world left or not; all that we are obsessed with is achieving one outcome, being the ‘winner’, whatever it takes.

We work hard to uphold the Paris Agreement on global warming and painstakingly design timelines to achieve it before we reach the point of no return. While the world is desperate to protect the planet, some countries generously allocate money for refurbishing and enlarging their nuclear stockpile to destroy everything in seconds. 

Instead of slowing down, this insanity is growing. It is growing from two sides. First, from the political side which is taking a sharp wrong turn. It is showing signs of becoming inward-looking. When you become self-centred, you see the rest of the world as a threat. You tend to deal with it with firepower. 

The second side is from the economic perspective. Since I have been working with poor people, particularly poor women, many people ask me what I think are the causes of poverty. My experience says poverty is not created by poor people; it is created by the system around us. Unless we fix the system, poverty is not going to disappear. So the solution to poverty is in fixing the system. There is nothing wrong with poor people; they are as good as anyone else. 

I use the analogy of a bonsai tree. If we pick the seed of the tallest tree in the forest and plant it in a flowerpot, we will only get a tiny tree, probably not more than two or three feet in height. It’s a cute little tree, exactly like the one in the forest but a tiny replica. Why doesn’t it grow taller than this? The explanation is very simple. There is nothing wrong with the seed, just that it was never given the base that is required for it to grow. Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds, society simply never gives them the space to grow as tall as others. The economic system that we have built causes poverty. If we fix the system, there will be no poverty. 

“Every individual is a go-getter, an entrepreneur, and that’s what our history shows”

Professor Muhammad Yunus

I have repeatedly tried to demonstrate how the system went wrong, and what damage the economic system has done to us. For example, it is designed as a process to create a continuous flow of wealth to concentrate at the top, in fewer and fewer hands. 

The problem of economic insanity began with the wrong interpretation of human beings in economic theory. The capitalist system assumes that human beings are driven by personal interests, in other words, human beings are selfish beings. I find it hard to accept this interpretation. Real human beings are not exclusively selfish beings, as the theory claims. They are a combination of selfishness and selflessness. By interpreting human beings as exclusively selfish beings, the theory succeeded in making people believe in it, and behave accordingly. In real life, people behave as if they are fitted with glasses with dollar signs to make them see only one thing - money. 

But if we interpret human beings as both selfish and selfless within the theoretical framework, the whole capitalist system becomes completely different. It will then have two kinds of businesses: the existing profit-maximising businesses on the basis of our selfishness, and another kind of business built on the basis of selflessness, business to solve people’s problems. This I call social business, something that doesn’t exist in business theory today. 

In selfless business, the entrepreneur will not have any intention of making any personal profit. The company will make profit, but it will stay with the company to expand after the entrepreneur gets his or her investment money back.

In selfish business, you want to make lots of money. But in selfless business you only think about bringing benefits to other people, without paying any attention to your personal gain. If we can introduce this social business idea to the world, we can have a better and more balanced world for all of us.   

Another vital area where the capitalist system went wrong is that it assumes human beings are born to be job seekers, that they must work for somebody else, as if a job is the sole destiny of human beings. This too is a wrong interpretation of human beings. Human beings are independent entities. Every individual is a go-getter, an entrepreneur, and that’s what our history shows.

It is in our DNA. We should tell our young people that they are born to be entrepreneurs. The least we can do is to tell all young people as they grow up that they have two options in life: they can choose to be job seekers, or job creators. They should prepare themselves for whichever option they choose to pursue. Today they are not given any such option.

If we accept this interpretation, that every human has the capability of becoming an entrepreneur, our whole economic system would change completely. The wealth concentration that we see will slow down, and even reverse itself if enough young people became entrepreneurs. They will no longer be mercenaries making other people richer and richer, and providing fuel for wealth concentration.

Instead they would become wealth owners themselves. They would become creative participants in the economy. With wealth getting more widely distributed, politics will tend to become cleaner. The core of politics has to change in a way that everybody can participate in it effectively. 

There is another emerging issue in this context, and that is artificial intelligence (AI). We are being told that soon factories, businesses and offices, will not need workers to run them. Instead, intelligent machines will run them. What would be left for humans to do? We are told that the masses of unemployed human beings that AI would generate could have decent lives with universal basic income. We are told that, in the next 25 years, AI will reach a level of intelligence equal to human intelligence. In the following 25 years it is not unlikely that they would have 1,000 times more intelligence than human beings. At that point in time, human beings will appear to be as intelligent as rats in the scale of human beings and actual rats today. They will outsmart human beings with ease and will decide whether they need human beings on this planet, and in what role. Even if they find a role for human beings, it is unlikely to be a dignified one. Whatever role we may hope to play in that world would definitely not be the role super-smart machines would have for us. They may quickly realise that human beings are a dispensable nuisance.  

We have another bit of insanity attached to this issue. We are so busy in the race to create super-intelligent machines we have forgotten to create any universal social watchdog to make sure there are strict guidelines to follow while we develop these technologies; for example to bring no harm to people physically, mentally, socially, and economically, and do no harm to the planet.

I see one common thread behind all this insanity: the basic flaw in our greed-based economic system. To address this once and for all we must redesign our existing unsustainable economic system, putting our human values of empathy, sharing, and caring, at the centre of all our activities — economic, political and social — and create a new civilisation based on those values. If we don’t do that, it is more likely that all of humankind will disappear within the coming century.